Monday, April 25, 2011
Bad Assumptions Lead to Bad Policies
What is so terribly interesting about bad governments is that they are as self-deceiving as they are deceptive. The straightforward clarity of Orwell's Oceania with its apparatchiks who knew exactly what the system was about and how evil it was, is woefully lacking in our own apparatchiks who assemble the most ridiculous plans out of the tissue paper of their own consensus and then goggle when it all comes apart on them. Whatever evil they harbor within themselves is outdone time and time again by their own stupidity.
Libya is a case in point. We are now loosely involved in a civil war in Libya on the side of the losing side. An engagement engineered by the brightest leaders the West had to offer. Forget dullards like Bush, Blair and Chirac-- the new generation weren't going to let themselves get caught out that way. These were sharp men, brainy boys who had gone to the right schools, Harvard, Oxford, Sciences Po. Surely they could draw on the lessons of history. The Western elite rushed out of their ivory towers to cheer on what they dubbed the 'Arab Spring', but it was a false spring. Its proper historical placement was not with the revolutions of 1848, but the Egyptian and Iraqi coups of 1952 and 1958. The decline of British and French colonial influence toppled Middle Eastern monarchies. The fall of American influence, combined with the malign power of the left, engineered the overthrow of pro-American governments in Egypt and Tunisia, as it had in Iran. There is no Arab Spring, only a Muslim Winter.
Western elites have been patting the Muslim world on the head, whispering soothing praises in its ears and hoping that it will reform and turn their lies into truths. And in their minds, to "reform" means to become like them. To adopt their system of government and their way of life. So it has been an article of faith that the trouble of the Muslim world is not religious, but political. Not Islam, but dictatorships. Open up the voting booths and every pile of rubble occupied by Bedouin barbarians with 7th century mores and 20th century weapons will become just like Norway. Democracy will save Muslims from themselves. And save us from them too.
So bad assumptions lead to bad policy. Western governments rushed to treat every large group of protesters as the will of the people. Chants and slogans took the place of the voting booth. Only the Saudis with their tanks in Bahrain got an exemption from the clause thanks to their snakelike grip on the foreign policy apparatus of their best customers. Ali and Mubarak had to go. Now the Islamists are tipped to take power in two of the formerly more stable parts of North Africa. Another great victory for democracy, which leaves out everyone who isn't a Muslim male.
And then there's Gaddafi, a lunatic with the worst army in the region, who refuses to go. And a scattered army of rebels comprising everyone from former regime thugs to Al-Qaeda. With a No Fly Zone turning into a trickle of military advisers for an intervening in a civil war-- the chief casualty of Libya has been history. Once again we know whom we're fighting against, but we don't know whom we're fighting for. Democracy is a great slogan, but short on details. And ideology is a poor substitute for strategy.
The functional execution of a moral imperative with real world strategies leads to moral compromises. We set out to save the women of Afghanistan from the Taliban, by subjecting them to the milder version of local laws, which still use rape as punishment, excuses honor killing, imprisons teenage girls who flee their husbands and far worse. We came to DeBaathify Iraq, only to be forced to ally with the Baath party anyway, because the Shiites and Al-Qaeda proved to be even worse.
Each time we are told that we are allying with the 'good guys' against the 'bad guys', what actually happens is that in the end we ally with whoever isn't shooting at us, against whoever is. Like it or not, that's exactly what became of our moral imperatives in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's already happening in Libya where we keep bombing rebel positions through some disastrous confluence of poor intelligence and rebel hostility. Put troops on the ground and they'll be shot at by both sides. Remove Gaddafi and you will create chaos that will force us to cobble together another coalition of the 'Currently Least Hostile' as we have tried to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.
How could we stumble into the same mess over and over again? Bad assumptions lead to bad policy. Unless the assumptions get a spring cleaning, the same mistakes will keep on happening over and over again.
If you assume that a moral policy (by your lights) must also be a successful one, then you will keep presiding over disasters until you learn otherwise.
Take our economic policy. It is an article of faith among liberals that conservative spending is bad economic policy and liberal spending is good economic policy. And vice versa. These articles of faith exist entirely apart from economic realities. Liberals discover deficits under conservative governments, and conservatives discover deficits under liberal governments. A change of government makes the fiscal hawks coo like doves. Now the New York Times and The Nation claim that deficits are a myth. Why? Because they interfere with their policy agenda.
We live in a strange political universe in which the existence of objective realities is treated as subjective for political reasons. Deficits, WMD's and Islamic Terrorism have become political Schrodinger's cats. Their reality dependent on the observer. Is there a cat in the box? We can't know.
Are we in an economic crisis? You could get a subjective answer from an ordinary citizen based on his own experiences, or a political answer from a wonk, but getting an objective answer has become nearly impossible. And without objective policymaking, all policies are bad policies. Political policymaking treats every crisis as an opportunity. The solution to every problem is the policy agenda of one side or the other, not a solution that derives from the nature of the problem undertaken with an awareness of the consequences.
By defining the problem in relation to the policy agenda, which is defined in terms of a political worldview, we rarely get at the actual problem. Instead we perpetuate the same policies over and over again. To understand why is to understand why we think the way that we do.
To posit that the great difficulty of the Muslim world is its lack of democracy, is to believe that democracy is what makes 'us better than them', and that by passing on this form of government to our distant relations across the Med, we can resolve their social and cultural problems. But democracy is decentralized decision making. And the EU may champion democracy in the Middle East, but it invariably opposes it at home. Decentralizing power relationships and decision making in authoritarian cultures does not lead to a better order, but to a more chaotic and fragile one.
Liberal conservatives invariably seize on the democracy theme, because they strive for a civic culture. The left seizes on popular protests against American backed leaders with equal zeal, because in their worldview, America and the West are the sum of everything that is wrong with the world. The Western enthusiasm for the Arab revolts are a Frankenstein merger of these two memes that appear compatible from a distance, but come apart on close examination.
Liberal conservatives think that civic participation can save the Muslim world, not because it can, but because they it can save the West. The left thinks that everyone should be living under a People's Dictatorship run by disgruntled university grads like themselves. Neither has much of a clue about the Muslim world. They simply apply their domestic attitudes globally. Post-Communist Russia and China baffle them, but do not stymie them. Instead they march blindly onward to the next stupid conclusion.
Economically we are caught between a left that thinks socialism is never bad economic policy and a right that thinks capitalism is never bad national policy. The debate now comes down to the right pressing for cuts in the left's sacred cows, and the left offering to cut the right's sacred cows instead. So far we have cut funding for the border fence and the military. Considering the cost of illegal immigration, the former is as clear cut a case of penny wise and pound foolish as there ever was in government. The tug of war is raising important questions about the sustainability of unlimited government spending, but the debates over social services spending are almost a sideshow. The real problems have always been structural. The problem is not how much we are spending, but that we have a system built on spending, in both the public and private sectors.
Right now we are trying to cut an alcoholic's booze supply by 10 percent, in order to one day cut it by 40 percent. But the problem isn't the total booze intake, it is that the alcoholic is addicted to drinking. Take away his Jack Daniels and he'll drink antifreeze. It's not the total or the percentage that's the issue, but the state of mind. Our corporations are just as irresponsible and incapable of long term vision as the socialists. It wasn't the socialists alone who carved up American industry and business. Just as often it was Wall Street and the CEO's who cared only about the next quarter, not the next century, let alone about their own country. This isn't a struggle between socialism and capitalism. Our leading capitalists are the biggest proponents of socialism. And socialists sit on the boards of corporations.
Our culture has ceased to think in the long term. The intersection between action and outcome is filled with political jargon. We have become great communicators and terrible implementers. The same bad assumptions keep leading to bad policies, that are critiqued and revisited each time because the mindset that leads to them has not been fixed. We fight wars and bankrupt ourselves without ever admitting what we are doing. Only after the deed is done do we acknowledge it, and then repeat it again. Until we change how we think, the same mistakes will keep happening over and over again.